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Back to school back in the day

By Walter Geiger Though August is only just about to begin, we are busy writing about and covering the start of school. Yes, I’m old but I never started a school year until after Labor Day. In fact, opening day dove shoots on Labor Day weekend were something akin to the end of summer for us. As we cleaned birds, we knew we would be hitting the books soon. It seems to me that the opening of school has crept forward along the calendar since the mid 1980s. I have no idea if there is any science behind this and I wonder if school will soon start in July or if summer vacation will eventually vanish altogether. But I have some ideas. Back in the day, I remember we were out of school Thursday and Friday for Thanksgiving and we got two weeks or so off from before Christmas until early January. We got no spring break but it seems there was a short respite at Easter and that was it. We got out of school at the end of May or very early in June. Now school systems have fall break, Christmas break, winter break and spring break. Students and their parents love these breaks but so do teachers and administrators and I don’t blame them. Annual trips are planned around these lulls and area school systems make an effort to coordinate them because families often include parents who are teachers in different systems. In order to set aside time for all these breaks, which usually last a week, summer has been shortened by a month. Back in the day, such breaks were not necessary. Most people couldn’t afford to jet off to Colorado to ski for a week in the winter or cruise to Cozumel in the spring. If they could, the logistics were nearly impossible. There were far fewer airline flights on the schedule and cruise ships were for only the very rich. Think Queen Mary. Travel is so much easier and affordable now and trips like these are commonplace during these breaks. Another reason for the late start to school was agriculture. I didn’t go to school with any farm kids in Savannah but I spent the last two and a half years of high school at Montgomery County where all 12 grades were located on one campus. There we had many farm kids and almost all the boys and many of the girls were expected to help with the harvest. When we got out of school, the Vidalia onion harvest had begun. Though there may have been some on the larger operations, I don’t recall ever seeing a migrant worker. The local folks harvested the crop and were glad to get the money they earned for the work. Tobacco was big around Montgomery County back then. There were huge barns in downtown Vidalia where farmers brought their crops to be auctioned to tobacco buyers. The auctioneers had a language all their own. The auction barns, built of corrugated metal, were hot and redolent with the alluring aroma of fresh picked tobacco. The morning radio news had daily reports on nematodes and other pests and diseases that threatened the money crop. Big rattlesnakes were killed in the tobacco fields and hung on the nearest road sign for the benefit of motorists. I cringed every time I saw one displayed in this manner. Again, in large part, tobacco was picked, hung on sticks in tall barns to dry, bundled and loaded for transport by the local folks who were not afraid to work and needed the money. Sure a few people were on public assistance but you didn’t know who because they didn’t flaunt it. Most worked and did so proudly. High school boys relished the tobacco harvest for gas and dating money. The work was hard and served as conditioning for football players. Back then, preseason football practice started the last week in August and the players were buff from the field when it began. The first game was usually on the second Friday in September. Nowadays, football players practice pretty much all summer and this year’s preseason scrimmages are just days away. One other reason I have heard for the early start to school is to get kids ready for testing. Kids are tested to make sure they are advancing at a pace set forth by government and that their teachers are properly preparing them – again to government specifications. I think we would have tested just as well. We studied and learned our lessons because we didn’t want to end up in the tobacco field for the rest of our lives or, worse, on public assistance. Times have changed and not all those changes have been for the better. Walter Geiger is editor and publisher of The Herald Gazette and the Pike County Journal Reporter. He may be reached by emailing him at or by calling 770.358.NEWS

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